7. Northern Renaissance
'Two groups of mankind have been, and still are, the principal factors of modern civilization; on the one hand, the Latin or Latinized people - the Italians, French, Spanish and Portuguese - and on the other, the Germanic people - the Belgians, Dutch, Germans, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, English, Scots and Americans. In the Latin group the Italians are undeniably the best artists; in the Germanic group they are indisputably the Flemings and the Dutch.' Hippolyte Taine
There has been a long-accepted division in art history between northern and southern culture. In his study of Netherlandish art, the nineteenth-century French writer and critic Hippolyte Taine elaborately characterizes northern temperament, physique and custom and their reflection in northern art. He notes in particular northern realism, and the tendency to proliferate detail, the freedom from any desire to over-refine or idealize nature or the human form, and the preference for landscape subjects.
It is of course important not to over-emphasize national or racial characteristics. The Renaissance after all was a period of great metropolitanism, and the beginning of cultural 'tourism' for both collectors and artists, who would often cross Europe, live abroad for long periods, absorb styles and exchange ideas. Nevertheless the Germanic/ Latin divide cannot be entirely denied, as Michelangelo recognized: 'In Flanders they prefer to paint what are called landscapes and many figures scattered here and there ... There is neither art nor reason in this, no proportion, no symmetry, no careful selection, no grandeur ... If I speak so ill of Flemish painting it is not because it is wholly bad, but because it seeks to render in perfection so many objects of which one alone, through its importance, would suffice...'